Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870) wrote almost 60 operas in addition to being the Director of the Naples Conservatory. His opera Il Proscritto (The Proscribed) is set to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano. It was premiered in Naples in 1842 and quickly disappeared. Conductor Carlo Rizzi discovered the score in the Naples Conservatory Archives and arranged a performance in 2022. It is from this show that this recording was made. The opera’s synopsis is below as is the list of performers.
Mercadante was a competent composer in a genre that demands excellence if a work is to gain an audience and hence survive. Il Proscritto is the story of a woman who finds herself with two husbands – worse they’re both tenors. It’s competently done without a single part that rises to the memorable which explains the 180 years between performances. On the other hand, there’s not a poorly done number either. The opera is the work of as musician well versed in his craft though devoid of genius and inspiration.
The year of its brief life, 1842, was that in which Verdi’s first success debuted – Nabucco. It was the start of his half century domination of Italian opera. Against this standard Mercadante never had a chance. First, he followed Rossini, then Donizetti and Bellini appeared. The competition was too much for his slender gifts.
Opera Rara’s mission is to is to perform and record “neglected operatic masterpieces.” Alas, the are almost none. Almost all neglected operas are so classified for the same reason; they’re not very good. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to hear what was going on at the same time the standards of the operatic repertory were composed.
The company’s music director Carlo Rizzi leads the Bitten Sinfonia with elan and polish. He seems to believe in the worth of this operatic resurrection. His singers are all quite good without achieving extraordinary virtuosity. The two principal male roles (Arturo and Giorgio) are, as mentioned above, both assigned to tenors. The main female roles (Malvina and Odoardo) are both mezzos. They did as much as was possible given the material they were tasked with interpreting.
The four parts are interesting and both the men and the women have duets together. Veteran tenor Ramón Vargas is the Malvina’s first husband presumed dead. He appears just after his wife has married the second tenor Iván Ayón-Rivas. The Peruvian singer won first prize at the 2021 Operalia competition. He sang with ardor though his sound was occasionally on the slender side. Vargas’ tenor is still a superior instrument despite its many years of use. Irene Roberts and Elizabeth DeShong – the latter a trouser role – as sister and brother while quite good were sometimes difficult to differentiate.
The story is in Scotland during the rule of Oliver Cromwell. The setting could just as well been rural Arkansas as the tale of marital surplus could have been anywhere. Malvina solves her domestic difficulties with the convenient operatic potion of poison. All the supporting roles are sung with distinction. This performance is as fine as this opera will ever get.
So who is this album for? Had I been in London when Il Proscritto was given a concert reading, I’d have gone. As for the recording, it’s best listened to on Spotify or a similar service as you’re unlikely to want to hear it more than once. Still one show every 180 years is better than most operas get.
Trying to pick a highlight from this opera that really doesn’t have one is hard. Here is the concertato near the end of the first act. Everyone is confused or upset about Giorgio’s appearance just after the wedding though they are as yet unaware of his identity. It gives a good feel for what the opera sounds like and also shows Mercadante’s skill at marshaling large vocal forces. Omai l’arcan terribile
The events take place in a castle near Edinburgh and its surroundings. The epoch is the middle of the 17th century, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Some time before the action begins, Malvina Douglas was married to Giorgio Argyll (a supporter of the Royalist cause); but he was caught up in a shipwreck and is believed dead. Malvina’s mother, Anna, and Anna’s son by an earlier marriage, Guglielmo Ruthven (a supporter of Cromwell), then urge her to marry Arturo Murray (also a Cromwellian). The action opens on the day of Malvina and Arturo’s planned wedding.
Richly illuminated gardens: to one side magnificent steps leading to the castle, in front of which is a platform with orchestra; a lake in the background, strewn with boats from which alight ladies, knights and relations of the Murray family; the Ruthven family proceed from the castle, giving them a festive welcome: Osvaldo is with the guards who surround the scene.
The gathered assembly celebrates the marriage about to take place between Malvina and Arturo (Chorus: ‘D’amistà le soavi catene’). Guglielmo, however, warns Osvaldo to remain alert, as Royalist rebels have been seen in the vicinity. Arturo arrives and declares his love for Malvina (Cavatina: ‘Son del tuo volto immagine’).
A large room in Malvina’s apartments; on the right a door that leads into internal rooms; on the other side an entrance that leads to a corridor.
The scene opens with a discussion between Clara, a former servant of Giorgio, now Malvina’s maid, and Odoardo, Malvina’s younger brother, who has hastened back from London on news of her impending wedding. Malvina enters and describes to Odoardo the shipwreck in which Giorgio perished, and then tells of her mother’s and Guglielmo’s plans to marry her to the Cromwellian Arturo. Her first thought had been to poison herself, but meetings with Arturo gradually blossomed into mutual love. She is, though, torn by guilt at the thought of her former husband. Odoardo tries to comfort her (Duet: ‘Il mar che freme’). Women appear and lead Malvina to her wedding.
Giorgio arrives, ushered in by Osvaldo. Giorgio asks to see Clara but refuses to give his name.Osvaldo departs, his suspicions aroused. Giorgio rejoices in anticipation of seeing his beloved Malvina (Romanza: ‘L’aura ch’io spiro’), feeling sure that, after his travails, none of the other guests will recognise him. Malvina arrives, the marriage ceremony completed, and immediately screams in horror, overcome at meeting Giorgio face to face. Hearing others approach and fearing for his safety, she ushers him into her rooms.
The assembled company arrives, Osvaldo whispering to Guglielmo that the castle’s unknown guest must now be in Malvina’s rooms. Malvina attempts to deny her evident agitation but half faints into the arms of the surrounding women. Everyone onstage explores their conflicting emotions – of despair (Malvina), perplexity (Odoardo, Arturo), suspicion (Guglielmo, Osvaldo) or concern (Anna, Clara) (Concertato: ‘Omai l’arcan terribile’).
Guglielmo and Osvaldo order armed men to search Malvina’s rooms, but Odoardo places
himself before the door. Swords are drawn, but suddenly Giorgio appears. He does not reveal his identity, but says that they can know the truth about him from the widow of Giorgio Argyll. Guglielmo orders the stranger taken prisoner. Giorgio resists but eventually gives his sword to Odoardo, inviting his opponents to kill him and place his head before the bridal couple. The act ends in an ensemble of general confusion (‘Il cor ne avvampa’).
Later the same day. A room in the apartments assigned to Arturo, who is sitting at a table on which lies a written document.
Osvaldo tells Arturo that Guglielmo has gone to Edinburgh to marshal troops who will escort the stranger there. After Osvaldo leaves, Arturo reads a letter he has received from Malvina, asking him to help the stranger, who she says is a friend of her deceased husband. Giorgio is shown in and, when they are alone, Arturo offers to release him; but Giorgio angrily refuses, also revealing that he was once loved by Malvina, a confession that tips the two men into open conflict (Duet: ‘Ah! perché rovente acciaro’). Arturo promises Giorgio a sword: at break of day, they will fight a duel to the death.
Rugged cliffs, some of which lean out over the sea. It is night, the moon is covered with clouds. From a cave, whose entrance is hidden by thickets, men emerge, wrapped in cloaks: they are the exiles, Giorgio’s companions.The exiles evoke the dark night and their wandering state (Chorus: ‘Ha steso la notte’). They hear bagpipes, first in the distance, then coming closer. Odoardo appears, saying he can help them rescue Giorgio. As proof of his good faith, he narrates to them how Giorgio saved his and Malvina’s father, rescuing him from the King’s executioners by pleading for his life (Aria: ‘Ahi! del giorno sanguinoso’). The exiles agree to Odoardo’s rescue plan and depart for the castle.
Inside a tower: a balcony at the back, a door to the side. Giorgio is asleep, dreaming uneasily of Malvina, as Odoardo and Malvina appear. Odoardo throws down a rope ladder from the balcony, warns Malvina that dawn is approaching, and departs. Giorgio awakes and Malvina tells him that his companions are waiting for him. In a passionate duet (‘Stretto agli avanzi fragili’), Giorgio tells her of his desperate times after the shipwreck and of his pain at now seeing her; but when she says she will escape with him, he begs her to remain with her new partner rather than join him in a vagabond life. She refuses and moves to the balcony, but they are interrupted by Arturo, Guglielmo and his followers. Arturo accuses his fiancée of treachery but Giorgio defends her honour, saying that she was escaping with her husband. This revelation of his identity precipitates another grand ensemble (Concertato: ‘Tutta in lui piombò del fato’). An officer then gives Arturo a letter from Cromwell, ceding to him the interrogation of the prisoner and, if he is found guilty, his execution. Malvina, Odoardo and the chorus beg Arturo to show mercy; but both he and Giorgio continue implacably opposed.
Early the next day. A large room next to the tower, with a door at the back. Giorgio is seated, Malvina is near the threshold, showing much agitation; two sentries patrol beyond the door. Giorgio and Malvina are waiting for Arturo’s decision. Giorgio wants only death, but Malvina asks him to swear that he will choose to live if she will undertake to forswear Arturo for ever. Giorgio agrees to the pact. Odoardo enters, reporting that Arturo has sent for Giorgio. Giorgio exits with Odoardo. Malvina, left alone, decides that she must kill herself, but is interrupted by Arturo, who announces that she is free to leave with Giorgio. Malvina rejects the offer, finally admitting that – in spite of Giorgio’s return – she continues to love Arturo. The latter is overjoyed, but Malvina tells him solemnly that they can only be united in heaven (Duet: ‘Vanne dunque’). Malvina departs and Giorgio rushes in, having overheard the final part of her conversation with Arturo. He again challenges his rival, who tries to placate him but is finally goaded into accepting a duel to the death. They are about to run off when Malvina staggers in, deathly pale. She says she has taken poison and entreats them both to fulfill their vows to her. As she falls to the ground, Giorgio rushes to her and signals Arturo to depart. His final words are: ‘Spenta o viva è mia tuttor!’ (Dead or alive, she is mine forever!).
© Roger Parker / Opera Rara, 2023
Carlo Rizzi conductor
Ramón Vargas Giorgio Argyll
Iván Ayón-Rivas Arturo Murray
Irene Roberts Malvina Douglas
Elizabeth DeShong Odoardo Douglas
Sally Matthews Anna Ruthven
Goderdzi Janelidze Guglielmo Ruthven
Susana Gaspar Clara
Alessandro Fisher Osvaldo
Niall Anderson An official of Cromwell
Opera Rara Chorus